SARATOGA SPRINGS—August 16, 1954, a Day of Horse Racing Fame—and a Night of Gambling Infamy


SARATOGA SPRINGS. On August 16, 1954, horse racing’s legendary took first in the seven furlong Oneonta Purse at Saratoga Race Track.

Native Dancer on cover of Time

That night the infamous Piping Rock Casino burned to the ground in a “mysterious” arson unsolved to this day. Or is it unsolved? It was an odd Monday. Alfred Vanderbilt’s Native Dancer had been sidelined since a May injury. Now in his first race since, could the colt win? The Grey Ghost, as the grey four year old was also affectionately called, had been assigned 137 pounds by Handicapper Jimmy Kilroe. This was The Dancer’s largest ever, and seven more pounds than he carried in his previous start, the Metropolitan Mile at Belmont. At that May 15th race, Native Dancer won by a neck. Adding to the interest, even drama, of the day was that the Dancer was running against First Glance, another Vanderbilt horse. Was Native Dancer far enough past his injuries to beat him? The outcome came on a muddy track, as 14,305 fans watched Native Dancer come in first, nine lengths ahead of First Glance! Racing history was being made. Sadly, Native Dancer’s foot injury kept recurring. He was scheduled to be shipped to France to compete in the prestigious Prix de l’Arc de Triomphe, but this would not happen. Native Dancer was retired to Vanderbilt’s Kentucky farm, put out to stud and sired famous progeny, although none as legendary as the Grey Ghost. But all that sizzled in Saratoga that August 16th wasn’t just Native Dancer! That night, or early in the morning of the 17th, one of Saratoga Springs most infamous casinos—Piping Rock Casino—burned to the ground. It was obviously arson–the Spa City’s solution of choice back then–but why burn it? The club had stood partially empty and unused since it was closed in 1950 as a result of the US Senator Estes Kefauver’s investigation into organized crime. In 1954, the IRS sold it at auction for back taxes owed by the mobsters who owned it:  Joe Adonis, Meyer Lansky, and Costello. It was purchased by a Schenectady businessman. But so many things left the police unable to solve the case. While it was clearly arson, the Piping Rock was uninsured at the time it burned. Seemingly no profit motive. Yet it was later discovered that, on the night it burned, it had been broken into before the fire and gaming equipment had been stolen. Nonetheless, to this day some people in Saratoga Springs insist the contents of the building had been cleared out years before and were in storage in Saratoga. Why was it torched? Who would have gained? Who would have lost? Were the stakes far greater for a certain few? Is there an answer to any or all of this? There is now. To discover it, get your copy of The Burning of The Piping Rock at your favorite bookstore and read Saratoga history as it rarely been portrayed. Happy reading, Joe

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